*This is a collaborative guest post
As a parent, few things are more disheartening than watching your child struggle to build and maintain friendships, adapt to social situations, and be able to interact and communicate with others.
If any of these scenarios sound familiar, your child may have trouble with their social skills. Social skills dictate how children behave in social situations, and how well they understand the implicit and subtle rules that take place when people communicate.
Every child is different. And the types of social skills they have trouble with, the extent of these challenges, and the age in which they present, will vary. If your child has trouble with social skills, they may:
- Talk too much or talk over others
- Miss social cues that come from body language or facial expressions
- Not follow social “rules” like waiting to take their turn when speaking and routinely interrupting others
- Not listen well, or withdraw from conversations
- Share inappropriate information
- Trouble resolving conflicts
- Use fleeting eye contacts or could use intense stares
- Fail to understand jokes, sarcasm, or metaphors
How Parents Can Work with Their Child to Improve Social Skills
As a speech-language pathologist, I routinely work with parents and children to help improve their social communication and feel more comfortable in social situations. Here are some common techniques parents can use at home with their child to reinforce best practices:
- Role Playing: Playdates, parties, and gatherings are hard for children who struggle with social skills. Many get anxious in social situations or isolate themselves from others. One helpful trick is to role play common situations, mocking situations your child may find themselves in. For example, pretend like you’re asking your child to play: “Can I play too?” Or practice introducing yourself: “Hi, my name is…” Finally, act out a negotiation: “When you’re done can I play with the toy?” Make sure to switch roles from time to time and let your child ask the questions. Don’t forget to use body language, like smiling and using gestures.
- Play Turn-Taking Games: Many types of common board games or card games require each participant to take turns. This is a great way to get your child in the habit of learning the value of waiting patiently, and then taking their turn when appropriate. Turn-taking in games for young children can help to lay the foundation for social turn-taking.
- Don’t Force Sharing: Try not to force toddlers to share. Children need to feel secure in their ownership of a toy or object before they’re comfortable sharing. It may seem counterintuitive, but try letting your kiddo take control of a toy for as long as they’d like. At the end of their turn, ask them to hand over their toy to another child – and make sure to praise them for sharing! This will help your child experience the power of generosity, and encourage more sharing in the future.
- Know Your Child’s Limits: Just like adults, some children are naturally social butterflies while others are more shy and introverted. Some children prefer large settings with multiple people, while others prefer to connect with peers in smaller groups. This is okay! What’s important is to know your child’s comfort level, and not force them to socialize when they’re uncomfortable.
Similarly, while some children might love giving hugs – others might find close touching and hugging to be overwhelming. It is beneficial to provide children the choice to have autonomy over their body, and can help them continue to feel safe and secure if we don’t insist that they give hugs if they’re not ready
- Follow Their Interests: What does your child like doing for fun? Maybe they like playing sports, or going to the playground, or playing an instrument, or playing video games. Great! Follow your child’s needs by allowing them to participate in activities they prefer. However, encourage them to participate in their interests with other like minded children who enjoy doing the same things. This is a great way to encourage natural interaction and help build social skills.
- Encourage Empathy: Having a lack of empathy (the inability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand how they feel) is a common problem associated with social skills. However, as a parent you’re in a unique position to help your child recognize other people’s feelings and respond in a caring way. Talk openly and honestly with your child about how people might feel in certain scenarios. You can do this conversationally or after reading a book or watching a movie. For example, you can ask: “after the dog lost his bone, how do you think that made him feel?”
- Seek Professional Help: If you believe your child needs more professional help, I encourage you to speak with a speech-language pathologist. They are communication experts that can help evaluate, diagnose, and treatment children with communication issues. They can also help determine whether a child’s speech and language difficulties could be associated with other developmental conditions, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder.
About Leanne Sherred, M.S. CCC-SLP:
Leanne calls Austin, Texas home but studied Speech and Hearing Sciences at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and gained her Master’s in Speech-language pathology from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She has worked in pediatric outpatient clinics, schools, early intervention, and home health. Leanne is currently the President and Founder of Expressable online speech therapy, a company that envisions a modern and affordable way for anyone who needs speech therapy to access these vital services. You can check out her blog here.